The Gospels, edited by Chad Whitacre

When I talk with Bible teachers, particularly those who focus on working through the text with their students (as opposed to a more topical approach), I am always struck by how many of them take advantage of desktop publishing software and readily available texts online to create customized layouts for class. It's nice to have a handout featuring just the section under consideration, single-colum, paragraphed, in 12 pt. type, perhaps even double-spaced, something students won't think twice about marking up during discussion. And of course it's so easy.

A bit more challenging is to create an entire Bible to your own specs. It can be done, of course. The tools are readily available. But most of us underestimate what a complicated task designing the Bible really is. Most who start down the path eventually give up. After all, the readily-available texts online aren't usually formatted for print. Do you take the time to re-format them, or do you copy and paste? (If you choose the latter, you might as well not bother.) Then there's the whole problem of good design. Knowing how to run the software is one thing; knowing how to design a thousand pages of text is another.

Every so often, I hear from someone who has persevered and created their own layout of the Bible or a portion of it. These efforts, while fine for personal use, don't often impress me from the standpoint of classic design. Let me introduce you to an exception to the rule, The Gospels, edited by Chad Whitacre. 

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As he explains in the preface (which is available at the link above) Chad started with the four gospels from the World English Bible, a revision of the ASV, which is available at ebible.org, then made some Cormac McCarthy-inspired tweaks to the punctuation — removing quotation marks and converting semicolons to commas. Guided by the single column NEB layout, he removed chapter and verse numbers to the margin, but instead of the outer margin he chose the inner one. He also divided the gospels internally into a total of thirty-four sections designed to emulate novel-style chapter breaks, making it easier to divide the readings in a group setting. When in doubt, he referred to Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style, which never disappoints.

To get a flavor for the result, you can follow the link to Chad's site and download a free PDF of the resulting layout. He has also made it available in two editions printed on demand by Lulu, a softcover and a hardback.

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The Bible is an anthology of books, and while traditionally we tend to bind it under one cover — a feat aided by small type and ultra-thin paper — there is something to be said for breaking out specific portions. The idea of a pocket New Testament springs from this logic, as do multi-volume editions of the Bible, not to mention the ultimate portable single-column KJV, the Pocket Canon.

By narrowing in on the gospels, Chad has freed himself from the kind of trade-offs that haunt designers of complete Bibles. He can create an elegant page layout without having to worry how many extra sheets will be required to print the spacious, uncramped volume. He can also use the standard paper options available through on-demand printing. Both of the Lulu volumes are comparable in binding quality to anything you'd find at the bookstore. Ghosting? Not a problem with this paper. And you can write on it with any instrument you like. I used rollerballs and a foutain pen. Neither bled or showed through on the reverse. There you go.

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As you flip through the Whitacre Gospels (for lack of a better title), you're stuck by how novel-like the layout is. If it weren't for those numbers along the inner margin, you could be reading pretty much anything. Which is the point. Chad's experience leading Bible studies plays a factor in the choices he makes. Having used The Books of the Bible, he appreciates the value to readers of an uncluttered experience of the text. We're accustomed to the books we read looking a certain way, and when they do, we don't really notice what they look like. The painstaking design choices disappear, leaving us alone with the text. But in a group setting, you want everyone to be able to find the right spot in the text, so Chad steps back from TBOTB's approach to chapter and verse numbering to adopt the NEB's method. Whether you agree or not with the choices he's made, it becomes clear that Chad has given each one some thought. 

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One of the most interesting features Chad has introduced is "scrolling." Instead of placing book, chapter, and verse information in the page header, each of the four gospels has a black bar on the side of the page. Sideways on, you can tell immediately where each book begins and ends. Next to the bars, you'll find the chapter numbers for the page spread. By flipping through the black bars, you can quickly locate the chapter you want in the book you want. Then you use the numbering down the inner margin to zero in on particular verses. Although I was initially skeptical, this method actually works quite well.

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Above, you can see the pages fanned out to reveal the chapter numbers. Here's a video from Chad's site in which he demonstrates how scrolling works:

The 6×9 page size is larger than that of the Cambridge Clarion I wrote about yesterday. The text column is also slightly wider at 3.75 inches. The typeface is Adobe Caslon Pro. I'm guessing the size is 10 pt., though it could be 9.5 or 9. Compared to the Pitt Minion, below, which is typical of the sort of handy edition we're likely to carry around, you can see that the Whitacre Gospels are much roomier and lend themselves better to easy reading.

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That's the trade-off question again. The Pitt Minion is slim and small and contains the entire Bible, whereas this volume is slim and large and contains only the gospels. If you happen to be reading the gospels, though, you'd clearly have an easier time with the specialized edition.

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In short, Chad has produced a splendid edition of the gospels based on a sound design philosophy optimized for reading and group study/discussion. He is making the result of his efforts available free as a PDF. If you like what you see, I would encourage you to support the effort by picking up a hard copy. You'll be surprised how readable this format is. Chad is also open to feedback, and would love to hear from publishers and other industry types who might be interested in helping take the project further. 

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(Updated) To order the latest edition, follow the link:

The Gospels, edited by Chad Whitacre

21 Comments on “The Gospels, edited by Chad Whitacre

  1. Thanks for the write-up, Mark! Yes the body text is 10 point Caslon. I noticed some foreshadowing in yesterday’s post, in a picture of the Cambridge Clarion undergoing some extreme limits testing. I’m honored to be part of the single-column revolution! :-)

  2. Amazing! From a Bible design perspective, on a scale of 1 to 10, this is somewhere about a 30 it is so good.
    I am not a big fan of cross-references in bibles since they clutter the page for me when I am reading. In single-column Bibles, when the cross-references are in the outer margins, it always seems to make things worse for my reading since it shifts the text often too far into the inner margin where the text can get sucked up too much into the gutter of the Bible. So when Crossway moved the cross-references to the inside margin of the ESV PSR (which is single column), I thought that was very good since it was only the cross-references going potentially going into the gutter (so to speak). Now Chad has improved on that – got rid of the cross references, took the NEB’s beautiful single-column layout with the verse numbers in the margin (where they belong) and moved them into the inner margin so that the main text block is in no danger of getting sucked into the gutter (especially if the binding is overly tight).
    The edge markings are brilliant as well.
    Chad’s new Gospel layout is what you get when you combine someone with a great eye for book design beauty with the passion and hard work to carry out their vision.
    Chad – Thank you for this. Just stunning work. I will be buying one off of Lulu.

  3. The perfect layout.
    Inner margin.
    No text in the gutter.
    The Cambridge Clarion would be perfect had it utilized this layout.
    Would be so nice if there were NASBs in this format.
    Outer margin ref’s, notes and ch./ verse is just plain stupid, stupid, stupid!
    Text in the gutter is idiotic!

  4. Does anyone know if it is possible to get Lulu (or someone) to print on India paper? I have a BCP idea that I want to self-print.

  5. Very nice, Chad! Not only is the versification in the margin but there are no distracting marks (bars, dots, etc) in the text to mark the “EXACT” verse divisions. I’d have preferred no versification at all but since it appears to be a marketing necessity, this would appear to be a fair compromise that all publishers should be willing to adopt in their “text” editions. And the font, size, line spacing…it’s all perfect.

  6. I would definitely buy a thick 2 volume NASB set of a nice bold spacious 12 pt. print
    inner-margin versification,
    single-column paragraph text layout
    on nice 27 lb. opaque paper – 9″ x 6″ block high-quality calfskin full-yapp binding w/ raised-bands
    even if it cost $300!

  7. Thanks for the kind words, all. It’s really satisfying to finally get this out there.
    Regarding the decision to include verses, there are real design considerations at play and not just marketing ones. I designed this edition at least as much for group study as for individual reading, and after using The Books of The Bible for two years in two different Bible studies I came to appreciate verse numbers for getting everyone to the same spot on the page. That edition’s lack of verses slowed everyone down–”Fourth full paragraph on page 247 … no, *full* paragraph.” But it was especially a stumbling block for more-Biblically-literate participants, who already knew the verse reference for a passage they would want to bring up, and were frustrated because their habitual knowledge was useless. On the other hand, I see this edition as a way for newcomers to Scripture to get their feet wet (possibly in a group with more-experienced readers), and I think it’s important to gently introduce the chapter/verse system early, because it is, in fact, essential for going deeper in Biblical studies.

  8. Perhaps the Whitaker Gospels will be expanded to include the whole Bible. But there is an advantage to have a portion of the bible to carry. It would be great if each book of the Bible or each section of the bible had a book of its own.
    Moulton’s version The Modern Reader’s Bible also was published in pocket books for individual books of Bible, or groups of books. It can be found in some libraries. I have never seen any sold in used bookstores.
    I own the Modern Reader’s Bible, which was set in the literary format, single column, with the verses in the margin. However, it used the Revised Version, and the print is small. The pocket versions can be found on Google books now, but the short size of the page actually interrupts the flow of the reading.
    THere are some paragraph Bibles on Google books, and pocket Bibles, like the Temple bible. But none seem practical, the print is too small. What would be great is a version of the Bible that would be the size of a large paperback, and the layout looking like any poetry book or novel, with no verse numbers, with readable print, in several volumes, like the Gospels in one book.

  9. Where do I find the “readily available texts online to create customized layouts”?? Sounds just what I’ve been looking for.

  10. I have some weird version called the Contemporary English Version that is single-column, paperback but with verses inline.

  11. Very nice layout. Bringhurst is now on my want list. One suggestion would be to reduce the intensity of the scroll blocks. Everything else on the page is so carefully nuanced that the big black blocks on the outer margin are a bit overpowering.
    Also, congratulations on devising a new category of Bible edition – the Group Study Bible. The “Everybody can be a Bible publisher” revolution makes it possible for anyone to come up with a selection of features that addresses a particular need, and have it printed. Most of us lack the imagination to make use of this ability in a truly innovative fashion, but that is exactly what you have done.

  12. Thank you. Bringhurst is a bit overwrought but all in all an engrossing reference. On the weight of the tabs, that’s partially a function of the trim allowance for bleeds: if I make it too thin I run the risk that it will get cut off entirely. I started reworking that feature using thin horizontal lines instead of black blocks, but ran out of steam before wanting to release the book. I have half a mind to finish that, but for now I tell myself that this just makes the durian stinkier. :-)
    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2007/04/stinky_durian.html
    I’m also considering ways to de-emphasize the verse numbers, such as only showing the first verse number for each paragraph, and/or half-toning them.
    And while I doubt I invented the category, I will own up to contributing to it. :-)

  13. This is really lovely. I can add nothing to the praise already given, so I’d like to add a note of dissent on one issue: the black bars on the page edges. Generally I dislike this quite a bit. There was a line of NRSVs (from Abingdon? or maybe Nelson) that used black bars in a similar way — and come to think of it, there was also a line of NABs that did the same thing. I always thought it was, frankly, ugly. Sorry, Chad! To me these bars shout “Technical manual!”
    The just-published Little Rock Catholic Study Bible, NABRE, also uses bars on the page edges, but a bit more subtly: the bars are a different color, light brown I think. Not too bad, I guess. That Bible is a single column edition with a nice layout (but not in the same class as Chad’s!) — but the binding is terrible: you’ll need to build up your muscles before you can break the spine sufficiently to read the text hiding in the gutter.

  14. Way late to the party here, but wanted to make a different sort of comment – did you say Mark is printed first? Now I appreciate the desire to put the Gospels in chronological order, and I know I’m going to sound like a fundamentalist duddie in 3, 2, 1…. but you know that Markan priority is not even near unanimous among Christian scholars, the Gospels in no tradition were ever printed in the order you give, and it’s not as if the Bible in general attempts a chronological arrangement (no one complains that 1/2 Thessalonians comes between Colossians and the Pastorals, or that Isaiah and Micah are separated by several prophets). It’d be one thing to print portions of the OT and make a decision between the traditional Hebrew ordering or the ‘Christian’ ordering, but moving the Gospels?

  15. What a beautiful cover! Great edition, Chad!
    I hope putting verse numbers in the margins can become more and more of a thing. It’s the first thing I look for when I look at Bibles—either no numbers, or put them in the margin. If I want to cross-reference I’ll do it on the computer.
    Not so sold on the McCarthy-style lack of quotation marks, though.
    Translation choice, well, my two favorite translations (Eugene Petersons crazy version, and the Swedish language “Bibel 2000”) is not in the public domain, so what can you do. It’s becoming more and more of an issue so I want to look in to public domain translations. This is the WEB, do you prefer it over the OEB?
    Putting Mark before Matthew: interesting. I’m fine with it, I like switching things around to get fresh eyes.

  16. @Frank: Thanks for speaking frankly. You must have more than average experience with technical manuals. I find the tabs distinctive and useful, myself. Also, thanks for the heads up on the NABRE; if you pin down the NRSV and NAB editions with tabs I’d be interested to hear about it. Better yet, maybe we could induce Mark to dedicate a post or two to tabbed editions? :-)
    @Stephen: Mark is first because it moves much faster than Matthew and so gives a better first impression to newcomers. Read the length of Matthew’s genealogy into Mark and Jesus is already calling the disciples. The matter of Markan priority is secondary (though I subscribe to it, personally). You’ll probably also dislike that I end Mark at 16:8, with no mention of alternate endings. It gets worse: I keep the story of the woman caught in adultery, because I like it.
    @Sandra: Thanks! I actually changed the cover for version 1.2, which you can find here: http://www.logstown.com/gospels/. Still stripped-down but subtly deeper. You have to see it in person to really appreciate it. I kept verse numbers in the margin to aid group study. The quotation marks were also absent from the ASV (forerunner of the WEB), and of course from the originals, so I hope I’m not just chasing a fad. Didn’t know about the OEB, thanks for putting it on my radar.
    I’d like to be clear that the main goal of the project is to bring people face to face with Jesus. It’s designed to be given to unchurched friends and family and especially used in group study with the same. If anyone wants to give this a shot get in touch. chad@zetaweb.com

  17. Chad. When will we see this is goatskin leather? Seriously, though, this is just the format that would be useful to “seeing” Jesus; not only for those who don’t yet know him, but for those of us who live in his Kingdom already. This is quite impressive.

  18. Thanks Richard. If you bring me the goatskin I will bind your copy personally. ;-)

    • Chad are you satisfied with how the book turned out? I am looking to do something similar but privately as I have permission to print modern translations. I was going to do this as a gift.

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